Why Karen Connelly had fun writing her latest novel
The Change Room is both a return to writing for pleasure and an exploration of pleasure and life with sex for author Karen Connelly. In The Change Room, Eliza, a middle-aged heterosexual woman, begins a steamy affair with a woman she meets at her community pool.
Below, Karen Connelly answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
1. Sharon Butala asks, "What is the main question that you wish somebody would ask you, although nobody ever has?"
Question: Does it hurt your feelings that your husband doesn't read your books? People will ask, "Has he read this?" (Meaning The Change Room or Burmese Lessons, which is partly about my past romantic relationship with a Burmese revolutionary.) But they never ask that next question: "Does that upset you?" I find that interesting. Canadians are so polite, it's sometimes irksome.
2. Lynn Coady asks, "What are the common themes (or settings, symbols, etc.) you always seem to come back to in your fiction (eg. bears, wrestling and Vienna in John Irving novels)? Where do those elements come from and what makes them so tenacious?"
Images and metaphors for the human body and the body of the earth which is, obviously, everything in our world. As violence has interested me, so sex interests me because they are both primary vehicles of power and intimacy. The Change Room is set in contemporary urban Canada. The Lizard Cage was set in a prison in Myanmar. (Many of my books are set in diverse places, these are just the two novels.) What do both of these settings call forth? The fragility and resilience of the human body, and plants, and the centrality of water to all life: Teza needs to bathe in his solitary cell; the boy is attacked in the communal shower room; the one tree left in the prison grounds is where the shrine is located; Eliza swims in her community pool and reconnects to her body and to the past; she arranges and sells beautiful flowers — "the promise of truth and beauty" — for a living. In The Change Room, violence in the world and in her lover's past is always coursing under the surface, but the heart of the book is its opposite: the joy and pleasure of the flesh.
3. Ian Brown asks, "What was the lowest point in the writing of your latest project? And the highest?"
Right now is the lowest point. I have never been more depressed about any book, especially just before publication, when I am usually excited and happy. But I've been sick with a bad cold; my whole system is in low ebb. And I'm nervous about turning The Change Room over to the world. I have never had so much fun — so many different kinds of pleasure, including erotic pleasure — while writing a book. And this is my twelfth book, really (even though my book of essays is not out yet, it's already written, collected).
But I know very well that any time a woman writes about sex, particularly explicit sex, and then transgressive sex (Eliza, a heterosexual married woman, has a passionate affair with another woman) that woman writer runs the risk of being
b) Not taken seriously.
c) Made fun of.
d) Completely ignored.
e) Or all of the above.
4. Scaachi Koul asks, "Is there any piece of writing you wrote in your past that you now regret?"
Absolutely nothing. Everything I have written was necessary to me as a writer, as a woman, and as a citizen when I wrote it. I've been writing and publishing seriously since I was 16, so some of it is not "mature" work, obviously. I am now 48. I am so lucky to have had even this much time to mature and deepen as a person and as an artist. I do not regret a single word.
5. Andre Alexis asks, "Are you conscious of the rhythm that paragraphs have, their length, when you're writing? Or is that something you work on as a form of sculpture afterwards?"
Because I grew up reading and writing poetry, I am conscious of every word. As a polyglot and a singer, I feel that the music of language IS the language; it's part of the composition. When I write a powerful sentence, I am so incredibly happy and mesmerized by it.
6. Vivek Shraya asks, "What is your favourite Canadian small press and why? (Not counting your own, if you're with a small press!)"
Turnstone Press in Winnipeg. They published me early and well and I loved the people I worked with there, two of whom were brilliant women, Christine Dulat and Manuela Dias, who died far, far too young, when their nascent gifts as humans were just coming to fruition. I still honour them, Christine and Manuela. Along with an early editor there, Pat Sanders, they helped me to become a writer. I will always be grateful to them, and to Turnstone.
7. Michael DeForge asks asks, "How often do you feel jealousy towards other writers? Do you feel guilty about it?"
Of course I feel jealousy and envy. Those are natural human emotions. I don't feel guilty. I acknowledge those feelings and try to talk about them with friends (generally speaking, not the ones I am jealous of, though lately I am sharing even that with them. Not easy.) It is hard to be a writer. Our egos are big and hungry and we are in competition (as well as deep community and communion) not only with our contemporaries, but with Shakespeare. Hahahahahaha! That puts it all into perspective. There's also the Bible and Homer and Iris Murdoch. Muriel Spark. Margaret Atwood! When you lift jealousy and envy up a few notches spiritually, it disintegrates into ashes (the ashes of our future cremations, perhaps, or every page any one has ever written). Like all human emotions, the uglier, harder ones also change and metamorphose with time. They are kind of sweetly, painfully ridiculous, when viewed with a bit of detachment. It's all very juicy.
8. Jen Sookfong Lee asks, "Writing sex scenes: fun or torture?"
At some point, maybe a couple years ago, I complained to a friend that writing The Change Room was going too slowly. She laughed and said, "Well, you'd finish it a lot faster if you wrote it with two hands!" Meaning put your research toys away and get to work. It was hilarious and totally accurate!
As I said, I have NEVER had so much fun writing a book in my life. I discovered tantra and started working with a Tibetan tantra teacher during the writing of this novel. I wish I could just keep writing it! In fact, I probably will keep writing it. I think The Change Room is the first of a series of books about the people in Eliza, Andrew and Shar's fictional world.